Yes, we are getting better at diversity

Writer and photographer James Mills has watched the outdoor industry get less white in the 25 years since he attended his first trade show. We still have a long way to go to make the outdoors truly diverse, but we talked to 6 emerging outdoor industry leaders who will help us get there. Here's how.
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From top left: Jose Gonzalez (photo credit: Lilita Wood), Justin Forrest Parks, Danielle Williams (photo credit: Maricela Rosales), James Edward Mills, Len Necefer, Elyse Rylander, and Mikah Meyer

From top left: Jose Gonzalez (photo credit: Lilita Wood), Justin Forrest Parks, Danielle Williams (photo credit: Maricela Rosales), James Edward Mills, Len Necefer, Elyse Rylander, and Mikah Meyer

When journalist James Edward Mills, 51, attended his first Outdoor Retailer show in 1992 he was surrounded by thousands of people yet he felt utterly alone. Like many walking the aisles, Mills shared the same love of the outdoors that they did. But he was also very different from most everyone there. He was one of the few African Americans at a massive industry gathering that was glaringly white.

“Nobody looked like me,” laughs Mills. “People were very friendly when they met me but they were also visibly taken aback.”

The demographics of people attending Outdoor Retailer were just a microcosm of the non-diverse population that the industry believed was engaging in backcountry recreation and adventure sports during that era. “I was working for an outdoor equipment company and they thought like the rest of the industry that their target demographic was a white male and his friends,” says Mills. “They told me they didn’t want to market to African Americans because they didn’t think that demographic spent time outdoors.”

More than 25 years after that first show, Mills has witnessed a transformation. The narrow mindset held by many in the industry is changing to embrace a more enlightened and factually accurate view of who is interested in outdoor recreation. And since people of color will become the majority in the United States in the next 20 years, embracing diversity is also good for business.

Mills was especially heartened by the number of non-whites walking the Outdoor Retailer aisles in 2017. “This is progress but you can’t assume everything is just fine just because more people of color are going to the show,” cautions Mills. “The power structure of companies in the industry needs to change. More people of color need to be hired and put in management positions.” Marketing is also in need of a reboot that goes well beyond diversity in photos. “You have to achieve cultural relevance in [non-white] communities,” adds Mills. “The outreach needs to be explicit with the message that the outdoors is for everyone.”

But how to accomplish such a herculean task?

Fortunately, many of the people of color who are OR newcomers are not just showing up. They are taking charge and forcing change. These millennials are wicked smart with social media and are determined to replace the outdoor industry’s monoculture with a far more diverse reality. SNEWS recently visited with six of these emerging leaders to get their take on what needs to happen for the industry to move beyond window dressing and truly achieve diversity, equity and inclusion.

Get involved: The Next 100 Coalition is a group of more than 50 organizations that are working together to achieve greater diversity and inclusion on national parks and other public lands. Visit this site more info

Danielle Williams

Williams, 31, is an active duty military officer who came to adventure sports through sky diving. In 2016 she started Melanin Base Camp as an Instagram platform to showcase people of color in adventure sports. It now has 6,000-plus followers along with a website featuring eight adventure athlete bloggers. Williams and her colleagues have also just introduced the Diversify Outdoors website which brings together some 15 organizations that are promoting diversity in the outdoor world.

For Williams, the issue around the seeming lack of diversity in the outdoors is not rooted in actual reality but a myth perpetuated by marketing that caters to predominately white audiences. “It’s important to acknowledge that people of color are already outside,” says Williams. “We’re simply absent from the stories that America tells herself about the outdoors. Let’s get rid of the damaging stereotypes.” This is why Williams shifted the initial focus of Melanin Basecamp from inspiring people of color to get outdoors. Now she is simply telling the stories of non-white recreationists and their backcountry adventures.

As for the coalition of groups that form Diversify Outdoors, Williams says they currently have a combined audience of 154,000 followers on social media. “Our focus is on historically marginalized communities and underrepresented groups, which includes women, people of color, queer youth and full-figured Americans,” she adds. “We’re all about disrupting traditional narratives on who belongs outdoors and replacing them with richer snapshots of Americans enjoying their favorite outdoor activities.”

Mikah Meyer

After Meyer’s father passed away from cancer, he decided he wanted to honor him with a record-setting adventure. Meyer, 32, converted his van and set out to visit every one of the National Park Service’s 417 units during a continuous three-year trip. As he sought to raise funding for the record-setting journey, Meyer was at first reluctant to promote the fact he was gay because he feared potential sponsor companies would not lend their support. But that didn’t last long. Meyer wanted to inspire queer youth to get outdoors and so he began unfurling his rainbow flag across the iconic landscapes he visited. Meyer lost one sponsor over his identity but he has gained more than 44,000 followers on Instagram who are keeping up with his #prideoutside journey. Meyer is now two-thirds of the way through his epic adventure and is making a strategic stop in Denver this week to visit Outdoor Retailer.

“I am on two journeys,” says Meyer. “One is to visit all the parks. The other is to spread acceptance and awareness for the LGBTQ community.” Meyer plans to ask companies at Outdoor Retailer about how they are marketing to the LGBTQ demographic. “There is a huge opportunity to advertise to the new normal,” he says.

Through his Instagram posts Meyer is trying to bust the cultural stereotype of gay men not being interested in wilderness adventure. He also wants to show the LGBTQ community that parks are safe and welcoming places for them. But the journey has not always been an easy one. Meyer says he gets negative comments, especially on social media.

“Sometimes when I unfurl my rainbow flag and others are around, I am a little afraid about what might happen,” he says. “But doing this is my calling.”

Justin Forrest Parks

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Parks, 25, had dreams of far-away places. He scrambled around in abandoned buildings and “wanted to do crazy stuff.” He eventually lived for a stint in Montana and traveled to South Africa and New Zealand. And he fell in love with climbing even though he was the only African American in his peer group drawn to the sport. Rather than try and change things from the outside he decided to move back home and foster change from within.

“I want to bring more diversity to climbing and create access to the sport for areas like the South Side,” says Parks. While Parks has watched indoor climbing explode in popularity in Chicago with multiple new gyms opening in the last few years, there are no facilities the on the South Side. “My dream is for there to be a gym in my community but so far companies are reluctant,” he says. “I get it. The location does not appeal to a business person.”

To bridge this gap Parks started the Sending in Color program which invites people of color to “climbing hangout” events at gyms in Chicago. Parks also seeks to “build representation” on his Instagram platform by posting photos of non-whites climbing both at the gym and in the backcountry.

But Parks believes it is time to move beyond the simple goal of visual representation on outdoor websites and platforms. “We don’t need to have this diversity conversation a million times,” he says. “To get to the next step, people of color need to be in management positions in the industry. At some point, diversity should no longer need to be part of the conversation once all the stigmas have disintegrated.” For Parks, the first Color the Crag climbing festival held last October in Steele, Alabama is the wave of the future because it explicitly celebrates diversity, community and climbing. “I felt so safe and welcome there,” he says. “It was very healing.”

Elyse Rylander

When Rylander, 27, was attending the University of Wisconsin, she heard about a creative writing program for queer students and she had an “aha moment” about what she wanted to do with her life. She decided to combine her two passions, supporting the queer community and being outdoors, into an adventure education non-profit specifically geared toward LGBTQ youth. Seattle-based OUT There Adventures opened in 2014 and has primarily worked with queer teens but is now also offering guided trips to adults.

“This teen demographic is far more likely to succumb to substance abuse and suicide,” says Rylander. “They often start a five week trip in a negative state of mind because that is how their community is telling them to be,” she adds. “But after all that time with no cell phones, they are so cheerful and positive about life by the end of the trip. Nature is the perfect place for a queer person to be. Diversity is everywhere.”

Rylander would like to see the outdoor industry more assertively support LGBTQ audiences and causes. “Silence equals compliance,” she notes. “What are they afraid of? If it’s how this might impact their bottom line then they need to own that. They can’t speak out of both sides of their mouth.”

Len Necefer

When Navajo tribal member Necefer was a kid growing up on the reservation, he loved to scramble on slickrock around his home in the high desert of Arizona. In college, he was drawn to climbing and soon found himself on mountain ascents with all white climbing buddies who knew nothing about the spiritual connections that Native Americans have to the land. “I would explain to my friends the history of the mountains according to my traditions,” says Necefer. “Outdoor recreation occurs on lands that were stewarded by indigenous people for thousands of years.”

Last year, Necefer turned that education effort into Natives Outdoors. The Denver-based organization is not only a non-profit campaign, public policy advocate and social media platform but also a gear company. Necefer sells items designed by Native artists and a portion of the profits goes to support indigenous outdoor activities and causes. He says he is the only Native-owned company in the outdoor industry. Necefer, at age 30, is the driving force behind a tribal summit at the upcoming summer 2018 Outdoor Retailer representing leaders from 48 different Indian nations. The summit will focus on collaboration between public lands managers and the tribes.

But it’s not just inclusiveness that Necefer is fighting for. He also is trying to protect his ancestral lands by helping recreationists adopt a more enlightened view of the outdoors. “The whole Navajo identity revolves around four sacred mountains,” says Necefer. “I want the outdoor industry to understand our Native view and how humans are connected to the natural world.”

Jose Gonzalez

Like other leaders in the diversity movement, Gonzalez got hooked on the outdoors in college but was conflicted by how few people on the trail looked like him. “The higher I hiked up the mountain the whiter it got—and I’m not talking about snow,” he says. “Whether it’s true or not, the narrative was Latinos don’t go outdoors.”

Gonzalez founded Latinos Outdoors in 2013 to build a community that incorporates his Latin heritage as well as his love of being in nature. “I didn’t want to leave my culture at the trailhead,” he says. “The biggest obstacle for Latinos on public lands is that they don’t feel welcome there.” Even though Latinos comprise 17 percent of the U.S. population, only 1 in 10 visitors to national parks fall into that demographic.

Latino Outdoors has grown from a blog and Instagram platform to an outings program. It sponsors organized family hikes and camping trips in California as well as major cities across the west, including Denver, Seattle and San Antonio. These trips on public lands are led by volunteers who help Latinos connect to their roots in places that often have Spanish place names and a long history of Latin settlement.

Gonzalez is happy to see the growth in the last few years of many Instagram campaigns that push diversity in the outdoors but he believes there is much more work to be done. “Beyond having brown-skinned ambassadors for a brand, there is the social justice issue that companies need to face,” he says. “If we are really going to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion then companies need to open up their decision making to people of color. Resources need to be leveraged to support these new faces and voices.”

The Future is Here

For James Edward Mills, the days of being the lone African American at Outdoor Retailer are over. “People of color are going outdoors in droves and the industry needs to engage them,” he says. But Mills cautions that it is a mistake to expect these new users to leave their culture behind in order to plug into the white version of outdoor recreation.

“We are at a tipping point,” says Mills. “We not only need more people of color working in management positions but their cultural identity needs to be integrated into the organizational structure. We can’t screw this up by being afraid of change.”

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